Last month’s watershed International Atomic Energy Agency report on Iran’s nuclear program has left little doubt that the country is striving to develop a military nuclear capability. Whether due to ideological fervor, hegemonic ambitions, or security interests, few doubt that the country is pressing determinedly forward in this direction.
Yet even though Iran’s ambitions seem clear, there has been growing discussion of late about the extent of its motivation – especially among those urging the international community to exercise caution on whether to take more coercive measures.
Why? In part it seems a response to recent indications that the international community is determined to increase the pressure on Iran. Those that oppose additional steps to pressure Iran – especially sanctions targeting the Central Bank and an embargo on Iran's oil exports – argue that more sanctions and threats of military force will only make Iran more determined to attain a military capability.
Others, though, suggest that broader regional developments are at play, particularly this year’s upheavals in Arab states across the region. They suggest that if these developments continue – and especially if the Assad regime falls in Syria – Iran will be weakened regionally, easing fears over its hegemonic designs for the region as a nuclear state.
So what should be made of these assessments? Those who argue against further international pressure on Iran in order to avoid further motivating it to acquire a military nuclear capability should explain how exactly they believe Iran will be more motivated. Surely Iran has already made clear its determination to attain a military capability? Unfortunately, what such commentators are implicitly establishing is an impossible Catch 22 for the international community. In effect, they are saying: If strong states increase the pressure on Iran to stop doing what it will otherwise supposedly have no reason to stop doing, it is they (not Iran) who will be responsible for Iran rushing to achieve the very capability that they were trying to prevent Iran from achieving in the first place. The implication of this, however, is that a nuclear Iran will come to pass whatever the international community does.
And what about the regional argument, that a weakened Iran is a less dangerous one? This seems equally precarious. Certainly, Syria – Iran’s key Arab ally in the Middle East – is facing a severe internal crisis that could very well end up toppling the current regime. And one could add to this that the contours of a battle for regional hegemony in the Middle East are coming into sharper focus – dynamics that will pit Iran against Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. This means that Iran, which has exerted considerable effort in trying to bring these regional heavyweights into its orbit, is likely to find itself increasingly at loggerheads with them. It is also true that the “Arab Spring” dynamic is liable to reinvigorate the internal protests in Iran that were launched after the election fraud of 2009.
But while it’s certainly true that regional dynamics aren’t currently working in Iran’s favor, this should be no reason for complacency. Indeed, a nervous Iran fearful for its regional position would likely remain motivated to attain a military nuclear capability as a potential game changer. And while nuclear weapons can’t protect the regime against internal upheavals, they do add to its appeal and status at home. Finally, a nuclear military capability would presumably make the kind of external intervention necessary for regime change, or a forceful international response to threatening steps that Iran itself takes against others, extremely unlikely.
In the face of mounting weakness, especially regionally, Iran could reach the point where it feels it is losing control, and it may feel tempted to accelerate its activity and make a dash for the bomb – even at the risk of a break with the international community – in order to save and enhance the regional gains it has made over the past decade.
The message to the international community should therefore be clear – Iran is already set on acquiring a nuclear military capability. It’s imperative, then, that the international community act now to boost the pressure on Tehran to get serious about negotiating a deal.
Time is running short before more forceful means may have to be employed.
Emily B. Landau is director of the Arms Control and Regional Security program at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). Yoel Guzansky is a research fellow at INSS and a former member of Israel's National Security Council.